Talking Europe interviews Rastislav Káčer, Slovakia's straight-talking minister for foreign and European affairs. Slovakia became the first NATO country to deliver warplanes to Ukraine, and Káčer discusses what difference that delivery could make, as well as Slovakia's plans to double its ammunition production. He also talks about his country's moves towards energy independence – Slovakia's nuclear industry, in particular, is still closely tied to Russia – and about Slovakia's sometimes complicated relationship with Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of neighbouring Hungary.
On ammunition production, Káčer says: "Slovakia is one of the countries in the EU – and there aren't too many of us – that has the capability to produce large-calibre ammunition. Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia, which was known in the past for substantial capacity in defence production. Slovakia was part of these heavier systems. We are good in large-calibre barrels for artillery, but also in large-calibre ammunition, such as 155mm, which is much in need. And now, within the EU's new ASAP programme (Act in Support of Ammunition Production, to help Ukraine), we are going to double our investment and double the production. Probably more than double the production."
We also discuss Slovakia’s energy dependence on Russia. Slovakia gets 60 percent of its natural gas, 95 percent of its oil and all of its nuclear fuel from Russia, according to the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies.
"The most critical part is nuclear fuel. It's not that easy to switch," Káčer says. "Given the technology we use, it's not easy to get the fuel from alternative sources. We're working on this heavily, and also cooperating with France – our minister of the economy will be visiting Paris – we are also in advanced talks with the Americans, with Westinghouse, etc. But we will need some time. [Russian] oil is somewhat critical but replaceable. As for gas, I think we can be independent if that became critical any time soon. With oil it's probably a question of months, and with nuclear it’s a question of a year or two."
Turning to relations with Hungary, and rule-of-law issues there, Káčer says: "We need to have red lines. Collectively we need to say what kind of evolution is acceptable; to say, 'here is the bar, and we will not go lower than this bar'. I think Hungary is now somewhere at that bar. But this is not only about Hungary; it's about the principles that bind Europe together. If we want stay as a united community, if we want to stay strong, if we want deeper European integration – which is a necessity in today's globalised world -- then we need these red lines. If it was Slovakia eroding the rule of law one day, God forbid, then the same equal instruments should apply."
Káčer then turns to a possible political return later this year by former Slovak prime minister Robert Fico, who has indicated that he would stop backing EU sanctions on Russia and stop Slovakian arms supplies to Ukraine.
"Probably this is a kind of Viktor Orbán virus that he (Fico) caught over the border," Káčer says. "I don't think this is only pre-election talk (elections will be held at the end of September). It is part of the pre-election campaign, but I also think he is serious. If Mr Fico wants to do things in the Orbán way, as he says, then we need to be concerned. I’m personally very concerned because I lived for five years in Budapest and I was not happy to see the erosion of the quality of democracy and the slow shifting towards a kind of semi-authoritarian or smart-authoritarian regime, which is very much in the same bed as Mr. Putin."
Programme produced by Isabelle Romero, Sophie Samaille and Perrine Desplats